“I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone”*…
Few people ever saw the images of china girls, although for decades they were ubiquitous in movie theaters. At the beginning of a reel of film, there would be a few frames of a woman’s head. She might be dressed up; she might be scowling at the camera. She might blink or move her head.
But if audiences saw her, it was only because there had been a mistake. These frames weren’t for public consumption. The china girl was there to assist the lab technicians processing the film. Even though the same person’s face might show up in reel after reel of film, her image would remain unknown to everyone except the technicians and projectionists.
For many years photo labs would produce unique china girl images; around a couple hundred women, perhaps more, had their images hidden at the beginning of films. As movies have transitioned from analog to digital, though, the china girls are disappearing.
China girls went by many names—leader ladies, girl head, lady wedge—but they were almost always images of women, and those women were almost always white. They were meant to show the person developing a film that everything had gone right technically; if it hadn’t, the china girl’s skin tone would look unnatural.
More lore at “The Forgotten ‘China Girls’ Hidden at the Beginning of Old Films.”
* Rainer Maria Rilke
As we hunt for Easter eggs, we might send frightening birthday greetings to Lon Chaney, Jr.; he was born on this date in 1906. Christened Creighton Tull Chaney, he took his famous father‘s name when he became an actor. While he is probably best remembered for playing Larry Talbot in the 1941 film The Wolf Man and its various crossovers, and Count Alucard (son of Dracula) in several horror films produced by Universal Studios, he was cast in a wide variety of roles (including Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men) in career that spanned four decades.